Dakota County law enforcement warns against marijuana legislation

Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom warned attendees at a forum in West St. Paul Nov. 20 he believed pending legislation that would legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota would lead to increased public safety hazards. (Luke Reiter/Review)

State legislators behind a bill that would legalize marijuana for medical use in Minnesota need to mellow out, according to Dakota County law enforcement officials.

The assessment came as part of a forum on the subject of legalized marijuana hosted by the Dakota County Attorney’s Office at Thompson Park’s Dakota Lodge in West St. Paul Nov. 20. Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom told those in attendance he worried attitudes toward cannabis were growing more lax due to misinformation and apathy.

“ I don’t believe the vast majority of Americans understand this issue — understand the parameters of what’s involved in this issue, understand the dangers associated with this substance in our society and to our kids,” Backstrom said.

Backstrom was joined by Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows, West St. Paul Police Chief Bud Shaver, School District 197 Superintendent Nancy Allen-Maestro and officers from Lakeville and Mendota Heights police departments, among others.

Backstrom said in his opinion proposed legislation that would allow for lawful sale and use of marijuana by qualifying medical patients would make it more difficult for police to do their jobs and pose a greater risk to the public, particularly children.

“It’s a big enough problem today without calling it a medicine,” Backstrom said.

Pot policy

Under current state law, possession of small amounts of marijuana is considered a decriminalized offense.  Minnesotans apprehended with less than 42.5 grams of marijuana receive a petty misdemeanor citation (equivalent to a seatbelt violation) and a $200 fine.

Possession of more than 42.5 grams (about 1.5 ounces), however, is a felony offense, punishable by five to 30 years in prison and fines up to $1 million, depending on the amount. Sale of the substance in any amount is a felony offense.

Bills have been introduced in both the state House of Representatives and the Senate that would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana to patients with debilitating illnesses. The legislation lists cancer, HIV, post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy and several other ailments as conditions which might be treated with medical marijuana; it also allows the commissioner of health to designate further illnesses and disorders that would qualify.

Patients who are prescribed a registration card by a doctor would be allowed to obtain up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana from a licensed caregiver or dispensary. Patients would also be allowed to seek authorization to grow up to 12 plants for personal use. The Legislature is expected to vote on medical marijuana during the 2014 session.

The Legislature previously approved medical marijuana laws in 2009, but the bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Gov. Mark Dayton has said he will not sign off on any legislation that is not supported by state law enforcement.

So far 20 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use; Washington state and Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use by public referendum in 2012.

A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling in March found 65 percent of Minnesotans supported legalizing medical marijuana for patients with serious or terminal illnesses. Another 27 percent opposed the move; 8 percent said they were unsure.

‘Not in our state’

One of the speakers at the Nov. 20 forum was Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program. Founded in 1996, the organization is dedicated to drug policy and law enforcement support in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Utah and is operated by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Gorman, a Colorado resident, said he’d fought against the legalization of recreational marijuana in his home state, but he and his fellow opponents were “stomped” by well-funded and well-organized advocacy organizations. Colorado residents passed the measure with 55 percent approval.

Gorman encouraged Dakota County law enforcement’s initiative in opposing the current legislation.

“I believe Minnesota could be the state that says, ‘Not in our state, go somewhere else,’” Gorman said.

Gorman said he believes the legalization of marijuana leads to increased usage, including increased access to marijuana among teens and preteens. Gorman said a recent study suggest that marijuana use during adolescence can affect the developing brain and lower the IQ of teens and young adults.

Gorman said regardless of how people feel about the subject, he believes Minnesota and other states should observe the process and effects of full legalization before they follow suit.

“What I hope the rest of the United States does is just wait,” Gorman said. “You have two experimental labs: Washington and Colorado. Don’t do anything — give them two to four years and you will know who wins the argument.”

Gorman said he believes if Minnesotans can convince the Legislature to vote down medical marijuana, it could spark a resurgence in marijuana opposition nationwide.

“I would love to see Minnesota turn it down,” Gorman said, and quipped: “I might even move here.”

 ‘Safer than alcohol’

Randy Quast, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, says he believes the best to regulate weed is to legalize it.

Quast said most opponents of legalization rely on outdated and scientifically-disproven characterizations of marijuana to make their case.

“To say marijuana doesn’t have medical benefits nowadays is almost laughable,” Quast said.

(Quast actually debated Backstrom on the issue of legalizing marijuana at an event at the State Fair this past summer.)

Quast said he thinks it absurd that marijuana faces such stigma when studies have shown it’s significantly less harmful to the human body than alcohol.

“It’s a substance less dangerous than beer and less toxic or harmful than children’s cough syrup,” Quast said. “Why would we arrest somebody for choosing something safer than alcohol or cigarettes?”

However, Police Chief Bud Shaver said in an interview he believes comparing risk profiles of different substances is misleading, because many people will interpret government approval of marijuana as a sign that there is no risk at all.

“Everything has some risk, even legitimate medications,” Shaver said.

Shaver added that legalizing marijuana will open it to commercial interests — a change he fears would make it far harder for law enforcement to regulate the reach and spread of the substance.

“The pusher on the street corner, that’s a guy that I have a legal remedy for,” Shaver said. “Corporate America is very good at selling products for money, and there’s a lot of money in marijuana.”

Legal Impact?

In response to claims that legalizing weed puts children in danger, Quast countered that well-designed regulation for legal marijuana sales would make it harder for kids to access the substance than it is currently on the black market. He also pointed out that cigarette use has declined sharply in the last 40 years while staying legal thanks to public information campaigns and regulation of how it’s advertised and where it’s sold.

Quast said in his opinion, Minnesota’s current marijuana laws do more harm than good because law enforcement agencies expend vast amounts of time and resources on a relatively mild substance. Quast also cited a 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union that indicated marijuana laws disproportionately affect African Americans.

According to the study, blacks are nearly 8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than whites, despite equal use of the substance between the two demographics (that figure includes citations and court summons). Minnesota’s imbalance is the third greatest in the nation, according to the study, behind only Iowa and Washington, D.C.

Quast said the benefits of a legal marijuana market for the state would be job creation and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue. He added that in his opinion the sale of marijuana will continue either way, and it would make sense for the government to get involved rather than allowing the black market to keep churning.

“The trade is going on now,” Quast said. “It’s just the state says, ‘We don’t want any of that revenue.’”

Luke Reiter can be reached at lreiter@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815.


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